On April 4, 2018, Iesha Nelson lost her job in the healthcare industry. The termination came unexpectedly, without explanation.
Nelson, a resident of Ward 7, went to the Minnesota Avenue office of the Department of Employment Services to file for unemployment benefits, but instead received an eight-week disqualification period because she wasn’t given a reason for termination.
After a successful appeal, she began her job search. “Any chance that I would get, I would go down to Minnesota Ave.,” she explains – to fill out applications, update her resume and use their computer, as she didn’t have her own.
Will Avila, who grew up in Brightwood, applied to 22 jobs after being released from prison for the third time. He sometimes checked the box indicating he was formerly incarcerated, sometimes didn’t. He ventured through Tenleytown, Friendship Heights and Columbia Heights in pursuit of employment. At last, after not disclosing, and with help from a friend, he was hired as a dishwasher.
A myriad of factors – racial, socioeconomic, infrastructural – have fostered DC’s geographical disparities in unemployment. In 2004, each ward in the District held distinct unemployment rates. Ward 1 sat at 6.4 percent, 2 at 3.6 percent, 3 at 1.9 percent, and then Wards 5, 6, 7 and 8 veered upwards at 10.2 percent, 7.5 percent, 12.6 percent and 19.1 percent respectively.
This phenomenon endured. In 2012, for instance, while Wards 2 and 3 held similar unemployment rates, floating around 3.5 percent, Wards 1’s 6.0 percent, 6’s 6.6 percent, 4’s 9.8 percent, 5’s 14 percent, 7’s 18 percent and 8’s 21.5 percent marked the divergence.
By May of this year, this couldn’t be further from the case. The unemployment rates of Wards 1 through 6 have converged. The rates in Wards 1 through 3 are similar, all within 2 percent of Ward 6. In May 2018, for Wards 1 through 6, the unemployment-rate percentages were 3.7, 3.4, 3.3, 4.6, 6.3 and 4.5 respectively.
While Wards 7 and 8 have the lowest unemployment rates since 2002, they don’t experience this phenomenon. Ward 7 held a 9.1 percent rate and Ward 8 a 11.6 percent rate. Why are these wards outliers in a trend that the rest of the city shares?
Race Still Matters
“It boils down to, basically, discrimination,” Janelle Jones, analyst at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), says. Even with the same levels of education, Jones explains, white residents still have a significantly easier time getting a job. When you control for other factors, throwing data into a regression is difficult because “discrimination plays a big part of labor market outcomes for black workers.” These factors, plentiful as they are complex, structure the intersection between DC’s geographical and racial disparities.
Jackie Ward, a realtor who lives in Ward 8 and worked in the Marion Barry administration, says she’s met residents who opened a PO box in Northwest to use for applications, “just so they wouldn’t be tainted with a Ward 8 address.”
Geographical disparity conspicuously mirrors that of race. The city is 41.7 percent African-American. Ward 7 is 93 percent, and Ward 8, 90 percent. In DC, Jones’ EPI study reported this spring, the ratio of black to white unemployment is 8.5 to 1. It’s 2 to 1 in the US.
The DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) found in March 2017 that in addition to an overall racial disparity in employment, the difference exists among college-educated residents. Black college graduates, DCFPI reported, had a 5.7 percent unemployment rate, while non-black college graduates’ rate was 1.9 percent. Linnea Lassiter wrote that her findings “are signs that an increasingly strong economy is not benefitting all residents equally and that the city’s racial inequities are widening.”
“DC has really seen true growth and prosperity, and unemployment and income inequality is systemic of the fact that this prosperity is not trickling down. It’s not being shared by everybody,” Brittany Alston, a DCFPI workforce policy analyst, explains. At-Large Councilmember Robert White (I) told Hill Rag, “the disparity in employment is absolutely unacceptable and has vestiges in long-held racist policies and industries here in the United States.”
The black unemployment rate in DC is the highest in the country among states. It’s not an “apples to apples comparison” to liken DC to states, says Leah Brooks, an assistant professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University, but it means something, something very simple. The city’s healthy unemployment rate is not benefiting everyone.
In the intersection of geography and race, the simple answer to why only certain wards’ rates are converging is gentrification: the introduction of educated, high-income, mostly white people into DC and the displacement of less-educated, lower-income, mostly black residents, Brooks explains. Most gentrifiers are white professionals, as evidenced in 2016 based on a DCFPI study by Claire Zippel. The result is in a percentage decrease in city’s African-American population without a significant decline in the absolute number of black residents, since the District’s population as a whole has risen.
However, African American residents have been displaced from wards west of the Anacostia River to the city’s two eastern wards. Where, in 2007, 42 percent of residents living west of the river were black, Zippel found, in 2016, it was 33 percent. East of the Anacostia the poverty rate was three times higher than west in 2015: 33 compared to 12 percent. As a result of this migratory pattern, “more black residents now live in the part of the city with the greatest economic challenges,” Zippel stated.
According to the Department of Employment Services, Ward 8’s unemployment rate in May 2018 was 11.6 percent. The citywide black unemployment rate was 12.9 percent. It makes sense, explains Troy Prestwood, a Ward 8 advisory neighborhood commissioner, that citywide black unemployment numbers are similar to those in Wards 7 and 8. Those who have been displaced and moved eastward may have already been suffering from “systemic unemployment,” and now the numbers are reflected in Wards 7 and 8. “If they have chronic unemployment issues, then that’s coming with them.”
Notably, gentrifiers east of the river are often black, the Washington City Paper reported in 2011. Aisha Moore, who moved to Congress Heights in 2002, told the paper: “The story over here, east of the river, is all about black gentrification.” Even with gentrification, then, and the displacement of the black population in wards that now boast unemployment rates similar to the wealthiest wards of the city, only a portion of Wards 7 and 8’s deviation from DC’s unemployment convergence is accounted for.
Can’t Get There from Here – Transportation Inequities
Throughout the application process, Nelson received two job offers. She couldn’t accept one simply because it was too difficult to get to, she doesn’t have a car. Often, jobs on listings for the DC area were much farther away. “My most challenging part about finding a job was finding the right location,” Nelson says. Avila also mentioned transportation first, when asked about main barriers to his job search.
In DC, the inaccessibility of public transportation has disproportionate impact. Entire swaths of the map east of the river lack Metro access: 25.3 percent of DC households were “underserved by transit,” Curbed reported this February. In 2017, The Washington Post explained how neighborhoods outside DC with Metro access have easier commutes downtown than parts of DC – for instance, Shady Grove, Md., compared to Southwest. The District Department of Transportation, reported the Post, found that Ward 8 residents have the “longest average commutes in the District.” That year, in Ward 8, Greater Greater Washington reported 47 percent of residents didn’t have access to a personal vehicle.
Prestwood cites the high cost of the city’s “robust transportation network.” He compares it to New York City, which has a flat rate for public transportation of $2.75. For reference, the cost of a Metro trip from Anacostia to the White House is $3.75. For those without easy Metro access, costly buses are often the alternative. With Metro repairs and delays, the problem grows in magnitude.
An imbalance in the location of jobs, primarily west of the Anacostia, exacerbates the problems. Nelson ventured far across the city in the job search. She was connected with an opportunity in Ward 7 only due to assistance from a former supervisor. In 2017, The Washington Post noted that in addition to jobs being in the center of the city, many are in parts of Maryland and Virginia that are also west of the Anacostia.
Ward highlights city efforts at providing bus passes for certain training and employment programs. “If you don’t have money to buy something to eat, what makes you think that you’re going to have money to go to a job interview,” she says.
Paper – birth certificates, Social Security, credit, addresses, perhaps criminal and civil arrest records – can define applicants in the eyes of employers. For Avila, a criminal arrest record mattered beyond incarceration. Avila founded Clean Decisions, an organization that employs returning citizens and offers pro-bono therapists for employees, and Changing Perceptions, a nonprofit helping returning citizens become entrepreneurs.
Avila did not always check the box indicating he had a criminal record in 2013, and partially attributes this to finding a job as a dishwasher. A year later, the Office of Human Rights began enforcing the Fair Criminal Record Screening Amendment Act, preventing job applicants from being unlawfully screened for arrests, criminal accusations or criminal convictions for positions in the DC (not federal) government and other organizations with more than 10 employees. The employer can still inquire after making a conditional offer, and can withdraw the offer under certain conditions.
Nonetheless, returning citizens face other barriers to employment beyond an arrest record. Most of the 15,000 returning citizens in DC live in Wards 7 and 8. The Department of Corrections reports that during the most recent quarter, 24.4 percent and 29.8 percent of releases were to Wards 7 and 8 respectively, while 0.8 percent were Ward 3. Of individuals incarcerated in DC, most are black, Prestwood notes, explaining, “It’s very difficult for them to create a career because they have so many strikes against them.”
For ex-offenders, a variety of factors including lack of stable housing and access to documents can impact attaining an ID. Robert White explains: “There’s nothing [returning citizens] can do before getting an ID, and it’s almost impossible to get a job and get housing.” A report cited by The Washington Post from the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence in 2016 found “more than 1 in 5 employed returning citizens lack stable housing … and those who were unemployed were even more likely to stay in homeless shelters or on the street.” In the report, returning citizen Taylar Nuevelle observed: “In D.C., you can ‘Ban the Box,’ but you can’t ban Google.”
In Wards 7 and 8, with higher levels of poverty and homelessness than other wards, not having an ID or license can mean losing job opportunities. To obtain a REAL ID in DC, residents need proof of identity, Social Security and residency and, for licenses, ability to drive. Documents to prove these must be presented, that is, they must exist and be accessible. For ex-offenders without IDs and residents without stable housing or easy access to paperwork alike, these requirements can be a grave impediment to employment.
Notably, the DC Council passed the Fair Credit in Employment Act in 2017, restricting employers from discriminating against applicants based on credit information. There are, however, restrictions to the law, including when not considering credit information would violate DC Law.
To secure employment, it matters, quite simply, which jobs are available. The DCFPI report noted: “The types of industries growing in this economy are industries where black people are typically underrepresented.” Lassiter attributed this in part to unequal access to education and racial discrimination.
Historically, the federal government employed many DC residents. According to Brooks, the number of federal government executive branch employees peaked in 1990. Available jobs like secretaries are dwindling, reported The Washington Post in 2014. In the 1950s, it wrote, clerical jobs were three-fourths of the federal workforce, and in the 1980s, one fifth. Now they are four percent.
“Working in the DC government historically is the first step to the middle class for most black families,” Ward says. “That was from the 1950s until the 1980s. Today I cannot say that.”
At-Large City Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I) introduced the Pathways to District Government Careers Act this April to help residents obtain DC government jobs. Silverman explains she’d heard from Ward 8 Councilmember and bill co-sponsor Trayon White (D) that his constituents had unsuccessfully applied for DC government jobs. The bill creates public sector apprenticeship programs for residents and gives DC high school graduates a first chance at entry-level government jobs.
The government approaches geographical disparities in unemployment from a variety of angles. In March 2018, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched the DC Infrastructure Academy, partnering with unions, universities and companies like Pepco and DC Water. Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity Courtney R. Snowden says it’s a “big deal.” More than 500 residents have already joined, and the jobs exist. Last year, almost half of DC infrastructure jobs weren’t occupied.
Ward referred younger members of her community to the academy but identifies barriers to participation. Some smoke marijuana, she says, some have tickets. “The academy was not designed to be a social service agency, but the population that it’s dealing with needs to have a social work component in it,” she notes.
For returning citizens, the government’s Project Empowerment partners with DC-area businesses for job training and matching. To participate, a resident must be employed and drug free, and be convicted of a felony or previously incarcerated. Avila says that while for some, the program is successful, others will lose employment at the end.
In April 2017, White and other councilmembers introduced the Returning Citizens Opportunity to Succeed Act, to increase accessibility for information on housing and employment for returning citizens. Currently under review, the bill “will be pretty transformative for returning citizens,” White explains.
A program prominent in the city since 1979 has targeted youth employment: the Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program. “Muriel Bowser gave me my most recent job,” Snowden laughs, “Marion Barry gave me my first.” Most participants live in Wards 7 and 8.
Snowden’s position was created by Bowser to “invest significant resources to combat the various disparities that exist in the city’s African-American population,” she explains. She focuses on rebuilding and revitalizing “overlooked and underserved communities” that have been “locked out of economic prosperity that’s swept through our city.” Among other efforts, Snowden has raised the maximum age for the summer youth employment program to 24. Furthermore, in February, Bowser announced “A Fair Shot – A Toolkit for Black Prosperity,” partnering with other city agencies to offer resources for job seekers.
Looking forward, Silverman points to the $300 million hospital building under construction on the campus of St. Elizabeths. She says DC will need to focus on how to optimize it to “make sure we are preparing District residents for every job in that hospital that we can prepare them for,” citing healthcare jobs like managing medical records, phlebotomists and nurses.
The day I spoke to Nelson, three months after she began her job search, she received a call. She’d gotten a job at another government agency. She’ll start at the end of the month.